Aiding transit in real time

Given metro Atlanta’s transportation mess, it’s refreshing to find progressive thinkers who are looking to improve things within the existing infrastructure, at little cost to anyone.

Kari Watkins is an engineering professor at Georgia Tech who, while at the University of Washington, co-developed a computer application for Seattle transit called OneBusAway. The app taps into vehicles’ GPS and provides real-time arrival information on users’ computers and mobile phones. This allows riders to limit their wait times at bus stops and train stations.

Watkins and her Tech students are now working with MARTA to develop similar technology here. (The coding for OneBusAway was also used to create MTA Bus Time in New York.)

In Seattle, project research for OneBusAway, available at www.onebusaway.org, turned up some interesting findings:

• Surveys show that people perceive they are waiting much longer for transit than they actually are — some research suggests up to twice as long — but Watkins found that with real-time information, there is no longer a difference between perception and reality.

• Eleven minutes’ wait is the cutoff point at which people will begin to consult transit schedules instead of showing up randomly at stations. (MARTA trains run about 15 minutes apart; bus waits can be 30 to 40 minutes or more.)

When OneBusAway started in Seattle, there was a 30-percent increase in the number of trips people said they took as a result of having the information. Women, especially, said they felt safer knowing when the bus would arrive so they could wait in more secure surroundings if they wanted to.

OneBusAway has more than 100,000 unique weekly users. Many say it gives them a sense of control over their trips and commutes.

A Tech alum, Watkins began pressuring MARTA to open up its schedule data when she arrived back in Atlanta almost two years ago — “so computer programmers could grab the data and … write applications that will help you as the rider.” Once MARTA agreed, Watkins began developing a version of OneBusAway for Atlanta. It’s now being tested internally.

“Our goal is to do a wider deployment in June,” she said. “Ideally, we wouldn’t open it up until we had rail service in it, because I don’t think we’re going to get a big audience in Atlanta from bus only.” (Seattle, in contrast, has robust bus service, as well as light rail.)

“The ultimate goal,” Watkins said, “is to open it up when we have both bus and rail,” and then slowly add university and Atlantic Station shuttles and other transit systems such as Cobb Community Transit. “Basically, anyone who has the information, we can add it so it’s in the same program.”

Yes, MARTA already has real-time message boards that tell you when trains will arrive. But they’re of limited help because you must enter the station and go to the platform to get that information.

“The beauty of mobile,” Watkins said, “is you’re not actually going to the transit stop first. If you have the information on your device, we can be sitting here talking, and I can click a couple buttons and say, ‘Oh, my bus isn’t coming for 20 minutes, let’s take our time.’ You can imagine apps in the future that will beep at you, ‘The bus is five blocks away.’”

Because OneBusAway utilizes open-source software, users can submit improvements of their own and develop complementary apps and websites. In Boston, somebody created a countdown sign for a coffeeshop near one station.

Watkins lives in Virginia-Highland with her husband and children. Most days, she commutes to Tech on her bicycle. She takes the bus occasionally, but finds the wait times too long for her busy schedule. Still, she is no MARTA critic. “I understand the frustrations, but I actually get mad at the people who get mad at MARTA, because they do a great job considering the resources they’re given. They are so cash-strapped.”

Watkins said she has made no money off OneBusAway in Seattle, nor does she plan to in Atlanta. “That’s not the goal. The entire goal is to bring about change — to make it easier to use transit so that we can have a more efficient transportation system. It’s kind of a grassroots effort.”

There are many challenges in getting more people to use MARTA. In helping those who already use the system, OneBusAway in Atlanta could stem dwindling ridership numbers.

Kari Watkins teaches in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech.

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